Slow motion in video games is no longer the raging force it used to be.
This saddens advocates of the mechanic like myself. It seems like only yesterday that games like F.E.A.R., Max Payne, TimeShift, and Stranglehold had… well, a stranglehold on the market, but alas, it’s another idea that got overplayed and waned away over time. Someone forgot to tell the entire world though, which is probably why RICO got made.
This is a rogue-lite FPS and the sophomore title from UK studio Ground Shatter. These Bristol boys came to fruition in 2018 with the release of SkyScrappers, a game that defied audiences everywhere by being blisteringly average. With RICO however, they’ve got Rising Star handling publishing, which is admittedly a left-field choice by them. When it’s not a CAVE sh’m’up, it’s usually something inherently wacky, like Lumo or Conga Master, but I digress.
RICO showcases a story of a city in ruin from crime. Drugs and gangs dominate the nameless metropolitan area. Kingpins rule the joint with the iron fist that the police fail to have, which is why a higher government body have arrived in order to take down the criminal organizations from the bottom up. Simple gang members won’t cut it, as you’ll also have to face off against mafioso types, psychopathic bouncers, and even army-level soldiers on your way to dismantling the organization, and it all needs to be done in 24 in-game hours.
From the get-go, you have a few options to choose from; A Quick Operation, A “Case” (the campaign of the game), and Lockdown, which is a wave defense mode within one of two set maps. Your safest bet at getting used to the intensities of RICO’s design will be with the Quick Operations, where the game will procedurally generate a random building complex, which you can edit the size of and the density of enemies inside. Your main objective will always be to gather evidence located in steel briefcases around the buildings, but there’s also various secondary objectives relating to speed, precision, brute force, and elegance. It’s to push you into using your Hard Boiled abilities to the limit, and once you get going, you really get going.
As soon as you burst through your first door, you have the perfect representation of what to expect from RICO. The bad guy’s vulgarities are pitch-shifted lower, the door breaks into tens of small pieces from a swift kick, the ripples of the air emanating from the discharged bullet. It’s all dirty, gritty, violent beauty in slow-motion, using an overplayed mechanic to its strength and somehow not making it feel like a chore.
There’s a rudimentary nature to how the slow-motion triggers. It’ll always happen when you breach a new room in single player (and when you’re in Lockdown, it triggers with certain headshots), but since you’re not in complete control of it triggering, you pay attention to other details. Details like the comic book-style aesthetic, which is reminiscent of titles like XIII or Borderlands without feeling like it’s directly ripping them off, or the controls, which are wonkier than Willy.
The shooting and aiming of RICO is about as smooth as the face of an acne-ridden teenager. The slow-motion tries its best to hide how hard it actually is to aim efficiently in a heated firefight, but once that slow-mo goes? All bets are off, that precision the game begs for relies solely on the auto-aiming, which tends to get stuck on enemies more often than not. Nevertheless, this can be slightly overlooked due to how gloriously mindless RICO can be at times.
It does make more sense to enter RICO’s gang-filled rooms with more of a primal mind; hip-firing with shotguns or sub-machine guns into a small room with all sorts of shrapnel and environmental hazards. It feels good to simply lose yourself in the rhythm of fury and fire that RICO sets up, and act like you’re a cel-shaded Christian Bale in Equilibrium.
This is partly thanks to some incredible-sounding weapons, which are a dream to use in blind rage. Buckshots which feel like they could pierce the heavens, assault rifles that shred up enemies and environments, and sub-machine guns that pepper the rooms with tiny lethal holes. Even the pistols have more nuance and weight behind them than the usual implementations of crap pistols in video games.
Once you get into CASE mode, those Equilibrium fantasies turn more into realities. Here, there are 3 ways to fail: running out your 24-hour in-game timer, meeting the bad end of a bullet, or failing to defuse bombs in what is honestly one of RICO’s more unfair aspects. Since there’s no transparency to the missions until you burst open one of several doors, randomly discovering a bomb in your adventures can throw a spanner in the works, ruining your flow.
The times until said bombs explode vary between “more than enough time” to “write your will then and there”. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could leave a poorly made wake of destruction behind you, but if you’re riding solo, you can’t move on until you eliminate everyone in the current room you’re destroying. However, should you be playing with a pal in co-op, split-screen or online, then you can usually bypass some rooms, and it’s here where I’ll concede that RICO is an absolutely phenomenal experience with a friend.
Tag-teaming these gang members with a buddy in co-op is a near-flawless experience. The strategies, the inherent nature of two buddy cops defying superiors and going balls-to-the-wall, the callouts and path planning– it’s all a flash of brilliance that radiates and stays with you. Throughout all of your missions, you’ll slide over each other, create twice as much destruction, and when you do take down that kingpin in the final level? Bliss is the only feeling, and it feels like Ground Shatter prepared the entire game for that feeling alone.
The map design plays very symmetrically no matter what kind of buggered-up seed you get. The office complexes and apartment blocks will usually split at the entrances of certain rooms, demanding that you cut your time in half by making your Starsky take the right path, while Hutch bombards the left. Despite runaway objectives and pointless rooms infecting most of your playthroughs on RICO, there’s still a lot about the levels within the game that still feel very natural.
The same can’t be said for some of the other parts of RICO, however. The sound design is a mixed bag, with punchy gunshots and doors being crushed sounding brilliant in slow-motion. However, the melee enemies never stop grunting when they’re alive. This leads into one of the more problematic problems regarding the game design, and that’s the constant spawning of “reinforcements”.
Upon the completion of certain objectives, more thugs will spawn in a charted part of the map randomly, and their A.I. is absolute crap when it comes to pathfinding. When melee thugs are one of the sets that spawn, your right or left speaker will be penetrated with constant UGH’s and WRARRRRRR’s, and they never. Bloody. Stop.
In fact, the A.I, in general is just poor. When it’s just them standing still and firing shots at you endlessly, you don’t see it, but when the reinforcements come in? Forget about it, it’s constant clipping into walls on their part, which you can manipulate with a broken melee attack that also clips through walls. Mmm, game break-y.
The performance of this game is also not optimized for consoles. You play on PC and you might have a much better time, both with the frame rate and the aiming. On console, the game dips below twenty several times, and it’s just difficult to get into the rhythm when the game plays like an arthritic pensioner if the heat gets too much. That being said, the frame rate getting severely terrible is a blue moon problem, at least on Xbox One. A blue moon that’s pretty bloody frustrating, but a blue moon nonetheless.
Lockdown could’ve also used some improvements. You’ve got two maps, and there’s no real base of defenses. Enemies will come from quite literally every direction, and unless you get a good seed generation, you won’t have any good cover either. It doesn’t fit the theme of RICO, i.e: shooting everything in sight, and instead fits more of a standard AAA cover combat title. Think Gears of War with cocaine.
The lack of transparency also fails to inspire confidence in combat as well. Say you’ve got bombs to defuse on the floors; you won’t find out about them until you break down a door with half of your health missing. It would’ve been nice to see certain objectives that require timing or stronger weapons immediately show up, as opposed to accidental punishment for inefficient work.
This struggle appears tenfold in hard mode, and Christ, the word “hard” has never been understated so heavily before. Enemies do more damage, the reinforcements are more powerful, and those melee thugs can end your life in one or two hits if you’re not careful. The only way you can even think of surviving a Case on Hard mode is if you exploit that melee glitch with door frames, but if you come across a bomb on your travels? Write your will, or get sliding.
However, I will say that all of these problems can be overlooked. RICO is without a doubt one of the best co-op experiences you will have in 2019, and it’s great to see a game full of just dumb fun. Let me put it like this: Did you write off F.E.A.R. because the horror wasn’t there? No, you didn’t, because the combat is perfect. Did you write off Max Payne 3 because the story was awful? No, because the combat is more than perfect.
It’s the same thing here. So what if the A.I doesn’t work up to standards, or if the melee thugs won’t shut their damn mouths? They’re cannon fodder anyway, and if you don’t think about it, it can’t get to you. It works in the same way action B-movies work. You’re not going to watch High Voltage for the plot, or the sets, you’re there to watch some brilliantly-directed gunfights… for the most part.
In the end, RICO is a great idea that’s gone through a lawnmower. A few critical pieces are missing, like decent A.I, and gratifying game modes, but the core is still intact. The combat is relentlessly exciting, the co-op is a wonderful experience, and your small sub-1 hour adventures will always be an adrenaline rush. Put The Geto Boys’ “Still” on repeat and lose yourself in the chaos.
This Review of RICO is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
It's one of the dumbest games around, with a multitude of issues, but the combat is exciting, its intentions pure, and offers one of the best co-op experiences you can have in 2019.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.